6: Grace in the Valley
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. For Heath Adamson, Psalm 23 is more than a familiar verse. Heath's journey to those pastures of God's care included detours through parental abuse and neglect, drug addiction, and even homelessness. Kim explores the riches of God's Word through Psalm 23 with Heath Adamson.
About the Guest
- "Grace in the Valley" by Heath Adamson https://www.heathadamson.com/grace-in-the-valley/
Heath Adamson’s home life was a wreck, and as a 17-year-old meth user, he wasn’t any better either. Then he met Jesus.
6: Grace in the Valley
Heath: Right in the middle of writing this manuscript, I was forced to wrestle with whether or not I was just going to write a book about a concept or if I was going to really embrace the concept. All of the sudden, my wife Ali became very sick; and what should have been a routine medical procedure put her in the hospital. She had about a 48-hour window to win or lose.
I’m just praying. I had my Bible open. I’m reading Psalm 23, and I realized, “God prepares His table according to the psalm. He does not prepare His table for us in the green pastures. He prepares the table for us in the valley of the shadow of death, but it’s only a shadow.” That’s when I realized the green pasture and the valley of the shadow of death are actually the same place.
Kim: When I read that in your book, it was hard for me to grasp that / to accept that because when I started your book, I was actually sitting by the bedside of friend—my 46-year-old friend—who was nearing the end of her battle with cancer. I was in hospice, and I would think to myself, “She’s serves a God / I serve a God / we serve this God who is able to bring healing / who is able to make this valley go away; but He’s choosing not to do so.” There were times when I wrestled with—“How can the valley also be the pasture—that green pasture that we look for?”
From the FamilyLife podcast network, this is Unfavorable Odds. I’m Kim Anthony.
Unfavorable Odds is all about finding hope and help in those seasons of life when things get pretty hard. Now, Jesus has promised that we never have to go through those dark places alone. He is always with us; and on each episode of this podcast, we’ll be talking with people who have done just that. They’ve navigated those places, and they draw their strength from Jesus.
Think with me a minute about Scripture that just about everybody knows: John 3:16, for one. You see those signs being held up in the stadium. Then, you go to the Old Testament, and you think about Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.” I’m mean that was actually the first set of verses I memorized, and I wasn’t even a Christian. It’s tempting to think that you know all there is to know about a section of Scripture like that—especially if you’ve memorized it; but I had a chance to spend some time with Heath Adamson. He’s an author, and he speaks all around the globe.
He currently is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of London, and he serves with a global nonprofit called Convoy of Hope. It’s a relief agency. Heath has written a book called Grace in the Valley. In it, he dares to explore questions like—“What if the green pastures and the valley of the shadow of death are actually the same place?”—which is a question that, honestly, I wasn’t too happy to consider; but I happened to be reading Heath’s book while walking with a friend through a literally valley of the shadow of death. His fresh perspective—it ministered to me.
Heath: Okay, so, my journey to faith started long before I was born; and I say that because Solomon writes in the book of Ecclesiastes this—he says, “God has placed eternity and the hearts of men”—and I will add the word women—“God has placed eternity deep within each one of us.” What does that mean?
There is this longing—an insatiable longing deep within our soul to know why we are here, where do we come from, and ultimately find meaning. We know that meaning is found in the truth; and truth is not a philosophy or religion. Truth is a person. So, when you gazed into the eyes of Jesus, you catch a true reflection of who you really are and who God created you to be.
So, I had this insatiable longing to know the truth as a young boy. Because of that, I experimented. I experimented with religion, but those closest to me introduced me to the fact of what you do not see is much more real than what you do see. This is a story for a believing believer, as I like to say; but at a young age, I was introduced to the spiritual world.
I was steeped in witchcraft and the occult, and I was taught by closest to me how to have conversations with spirits. Candidly, that took me down a road that took me farther than I ever thought I would go—to quote somebody who said that “Sin also keeps you longer than you intend to stay.”
So, as a young boy, I was steeped in the occult and witchcraft which meant I was also abusing drugs—very violent person, very mean person—but I was hungry to know the truth, and I was fascinated with religion and spirituality.
In eighth grade, I took a break from all the dark, creepy things because my mom married my stepdad; and the rule in the family was that they were going to get married. I had to attend religious classes—
Heath: —at a church. I want to be clear. I could have met Christ at that church. I did not; but I took a break from all of the dark things. And in eighth grade, that’s when the loudest voice in the universe—which seldom has volume—was heard by an eighth grade girl. She was walking down the hallway of our public school and just sensed a whisper in her heart that said something to the effect of—“See that young boy over there at the locker. Pray for him. You’re going to marry him one day.”
What this eighth grade girl did is she went home, and she simply told her mom what happened. You know, thank God for a parent who is present when their teenager wants to talk. Her and her mom began to pray. They prayed for three and half years, I found out. At the age of 17, when I finally met Jesus and had a significant life-changing encounter, I realized that God began to use the prayers of that girl who in eighth grade—her and her mom began to cry out to God.
So, that’s kind of how it began, but there is so much to the story.
Kim: Now, when you came to Christ, you visited a church; and there was something going on in that church that was unusual.
Kim: You talk about how if you had walked into this perfect church where the pastor was preaching and everyone was sitting in their pews and all looked well, perhaps, you would not have been drawn to that place.
Heath: Yes; very true. I think a lot of folks struggle with whether or not God is embarrassed of them, and I know I certainly did. I know I wondered whether or not—if there was a God, would He be ashamed to be seen with me? If there is a God, is God angry? Is God in a bad mood? If I could connect with God, would He scold me for all of the things I did wrong?
I want to be clear. God’s grace is incredibly good, but the grace of God is not license to do whatever we want. God’s grace demands more from us than the Law ever will; but at the age of 17, I encountered grace that changed me forever.
I was invited to a church service—probably, the most dysfunctional church service you can fathom, Kim. I walked into this little youth group. There were about 20 teenagers sitting in a circle, and I remember the night vividly. I walked in—it had been four nights since I slept simply because I was abusing a drug called crystal methamphetamines. When you abuse that drug, you don’t sleep.
So, I walk in. I have black rings around my eyes. I’m wearing my tie-dyed t-shirt with a big marijuana leaf on the chest, and I walk in. Here it is—this is my youth group experience—20 teenagers sitting in a circle. There was no sermon preached that night. There certainly was not anybody singing a worship song. What happened was—is somebody in the church became angry and obstinate and actually made death threats against the pastor. So, they were having a family meeting, and the police were there. I remember one of the officers. His name was Willie. He used to search my car.
So, I walk in and hear the police, people are crying, people are screaming at one another, and that was my first real experience when I was seeking God in a church. A volunteer youth leader—thank God for people who volunteer and serve in the local church—a truck driver who volunteered whose son happened to go to high school with me who issued the invitation for me to come to church. At the end of this dysfunctional meeting, he just said, “Hey, let’s pray.”
You know the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it’s the power of God. I love that there was nothing relevant that night. There was nothing that was done with excellence. There were no bells and whistles. It was just the raw gospel, and the gospel is not given to us so that bad people can become good people. The gospel is given so that spiritually dead people can come alive.
When I heard the gospel at the age of 17 in that little, dysfunctional church service, I committed my life to Christ. That was the beginning; you know? Salvation is not the finish line. Salvation is a door. Once you walk through the door, you discover how big the kingdom is.
So, I stayed up that night, I remember. I stayed up all night. I got my hands on a little Bible that my grandma left my mom. I’d never really read the Bible before. I remember looking through the Old Testament. I came across the book of Job. I thought it was a book about jobs. [Laughter] I had no idea. So, stayed up that night and read through the New Testament, went to school the next day. As soon as I walked into school, people said, “Heath, what’s different about you? There’s something”—
Heath: —“different about you”—yes. We know that’s the transformative work of Christ, but it doesn’t mean everything becomes perfect when we come to God. Sometimes, we still we have to work through some things.
Well, the day after meeting Jesus, that’s when I realized I wasn’t alone. I checked the mail, and there was a handwritten letter from that girl who in eighth grade dared to listen when the Holy Spirit whispered to her, “You see that young boy. Pray for him. You’re going to marry him one day”—five pages written in her own hand. She answered all of the questions I used to ask her about God in eighth grade.
I remember after I married that girl—her name is Ali—after I married her, I found her prayer journals—upper right hand corner, 2:53 AM. She would write things like—“God, I pray reveal yourself to Heath. Let Heath know that You love him.” So, I am basically the product of one person who invited me to a dysfunctional church service and a eighth girl and a mom who dared to listen when the Holy Spirit whispered and dared to believe that Jesus can resurrect spiritually dead people.
Kim: Now, your book, Grace in the Valley: Awakening to God’s Presence When He Feels So Far Away, is a journey through Psalm 23. Why did you choose to write on this topic?
Heath: Okay, so, that’s the million dollar question.
Kim: It is.
Heath: I would say, you know—so, you’ve heard how I met Jesus in a fairly dramatic way.
Heath: I know what it is like to be a drug addict and then instantaneously have those cravings dissipate and taken away. I know what it is like to experience the transformative work of salvation; but I also know that—within 24 hours of meeting Jesus, I quickly realized that becoming a Christian doesn’t make life perfect.
Heath: Jesus said it this way: “In this life, you’ll have trouble, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” When I became a Christian, I realized God can do anything, and I also realized sometimes life is still hard even though God is so good.
So, one of the first chapters in the Bible that I ever devoted to memory was Psalm 23. I meet people all over the world who have memorized this psalm. Many people who are of other religions and faiths who are familiar with the words, and they may not even know who Jesus is yet. There is something about this psalm; and when I devoted it to memory as a young boy, I remember, as a new believer, asking, “God, if You’re so good and so powerful, why do certain things still happen?”
So, there’s this tension / this paradox of God is all-knowing, God is all-powerful, God is everywhere; but then, why doesn’t God prevent certain things from happening? Why doesn’t God turn my mourning into dancing instantaneously?
Heath: I quickly realized the life in God has a lot to do with our ability to steward mystery. What do I mean? In the Greek New Testament, one of the words that is translated miracle is mysterion. That’s where we get our word mystery. When you think of a miracle, maybe, you think of someone like Heath Adamson who was as far away from God as you can fathom; and now, I’m endeavoring to leave a legacy for generations to come and my family—with my wife Ali and our two girls.
You think of a miracle—maybe, you think of a marriage that is falling apart; and all of the sudden, God breathes life into a marriage; or you think of someone who is depressed and suicidal. All of the sudden, they realize God’s mercy is new today, and they have hope again that is restored; but a miracle is also a mystery—mysterion—where God invites us into a moment that is diametrically opposed to what we know to be true about God.
So, my question to you, Kim, would be this: What do you do / what do I do when we face a situation that does not line up with what we know to be true—
Heath: —about God? It means you and I trust God even if our situation gives us a reason not to. So, a few years ago, I just—I asked myself this question. I was reading through Psalm 23 again—once again, wrestling with the question: “God, if you are so good / so powerful / all-knowing, why do I encounter situations that do not line up with You goodness?”
I’m reading Psalm 23, and I had the thought, “Wait a second. It says He makes me lie down in green pastures, and I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” I’ve inverted that many times. Often, I have walked through the green pasture and chosen to lie down in the valley; and I had the thought, “Wait a second. What if the green pasture and the valley of the shadow of death are actually the same place?”
Heath: “If they are, what determines whether or not you’re in one or the other?”
Well, I devoted about three years to study Psalm 23, and I began to discover the goodness of God exists, not just in the green pasture, but in the valley; but I will say this. Right in the middle of writing this manuscript, I was forced to wrestle with whether or not I was just going to write a book about a concept or if I was going to really embrace the concept.
Heath: So, I was staring at five different publishing contracts praying about who to go with because it was a major decision for me because I’m somewhat of a new author. Once we decided who to go with, Baker Books published the book.
As I was working on the manuscript, we experienced something that shook our family to the core. Again, remember I’m the guy who has seen God do some miraculous things; and all of the sudden, my wife Ali, the love of my life / the most important piece of my existence, to be candid with you—she became very sick. What should have been a routine medical procedure put her in the hospital. She had about a 48-hour window to win or lose; and it was a scary time.
I remember I’m in the hospital room. It was about one in the morning. Our girls—we had sent them on to be with their nonna. Ali was sleeping. She’s under the influence of pain medicine. She’s not responding much, and I’m just praying. I have my Bible open. I’m reading Psalm 23. Even though I had it memorized, sometimes, you just need the words.
Heath: I’m reading the words, and I realized, “Wait a second. It’s true. God prepares His table—according to the psalm, He does not prepare His table for us in the green pastures. He prepares a table for us in the valley of the shadow death; but it’s only a shadow.” That’s when I realized the green pasture and the valley of the shadow of death are actually the same place. Even when God feels far away and we feel like we’re dwelling underneath this canopy of a shadow, a shadow is evidence that there is a bright light that exists just beyond.
So, I learned how to draw near to the Light of the World in the valley of the shadow of death.
I’ve found that when you walk through the valley, you can’t always believe everything you think, and you can’t always believe everything you feel. What do I mean? Well, the Bible is clear that the heart is deceitful above all, and the greatest misunderstandings in life are not intellectual. The greatest misunderstandings, I would suggest, are spiritual. We don’t think with our mind. The Bible says, “For as a man”—and I will add woman—“as we think in our hearts, so are we.”
So, when we think with our heart—if our heart is planted in the presence and grace of God and the truth of God’s Word, then, we can trust how we feel. We can trust what we think because how we feel and what we think is in alignment where God is. God feels. If anybody understands how these paradoxes go in life, it’s God.
Remember the story in John—I think, it’s John 11—when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead?
Heath: When you read that story, I don’t know about you, but I just—I catch a glimpse of a God who walks up to this tomb, and He says—in the text—“Lazarus, come forth.” The Bible says in the Song of Solomon that love is stronger than death. I believe that it was the love that was in the voice of Jesus that raised Lazarus from the dead; but what does Jesus do before He raises Lazarus? The Bible says in John 11:35 that Jesus weeps, and that Greek word for wept is to cry vehemently. He is travailing.
Why would Jesus weep knowing He is about to raise the guy from the dead? It shows me that God is okay with our feelings. He’s a feeling God. He’s a thinking God, and He is okay with that.
In the Gospels, there are 125 unique teaching incidents of Jesus; and 13 of the start with content and everything else starts with a question. One of the primary ways God transitioned the world from the old covenant to the new covenant is by asking questions; and questions often tell us more than answers do.
So, when we find ourselves in this situation, like you were in hospice, where we’re like—“God, wait a second. Why aren’t You healing my friend?” and your heart is overwhelmed with emotion. I know how I felt in the hospital room. I know how my family feels when we’ve walked through our particular, specific valleys. God is okay with our questions. God is okay with our feelings. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But sometimes, what we think is a spiritual attack is often an invitation by God to sit at His table and feast. We’ve got to remember that, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it is only a shadow; and eternity is a long time, and this life is but a vapor. God understands our pain. He understands our questions.
We’ve got to remember that this life is not all that there is; and in that, we take comfort / in Him, we take comfort.
Kim: Absolutely. That brings me to page 14 of your book. This happens to be one of the passages I was reading when I was sitting next to my friend, and it brought me so much comfort. It says, “Love demonstrates its strength not by preventing the weaker and painful things from happening. Love reveals its profound essence when, though it can win, it chooses to come alongside us and hold us. By not preventing the valley but revealing itself in it, love’s great strength is revealed, and the object love’s attention is you; and you have your breath taken away.”
I just want to thank you for diving into this topic. Thank you for bringing us a different perspective of Psalm 23 because this particular passage is what I’ve held on to as I’ve walked with her; and she most recently stepped into the arms of Jesus. I believe it is by divine grace that I was reading your book through this time.
Heath: I’m so glad God encouraged you through it. I’m glad God used the content to encourage you; and even more than that, God used His word / He used Scripture that divides soul from spirit and bone from marrow. He used His Word to encourage you.
I don’t know about you, Kim; but I know that my family and I, whenever we walk through our valleys, we always go to the Word.
Heath: We always go to Scripture, and we let God speak; you know? His voice echoes on the pages of our Bible. We always let Scripture speak, and you can never go wrong. If there is one gift I could give anybody who reads the book, it would just be an insatiable desire to consistently go to Scripture—
Heath: —and let Scripture speak truth to you when you walk through your tough time.
Kim: Yes; because as you mentioned before, our reality doesn’t always reflect—in our eyes—God’s goodness.
Heath: Oh, very much; yes.
Kim: When we go to that Scripture and we see that He is good / we see that He does not change, that is comforting.
Heath: Yes, ma’am; very much so.
Kim: When it comes to us embracing our Lord as our shepherd, one of the things you say is that there’s a place of vulnerability we must arrive at in the midst of our needs because, sometimes, we get so worried about what people think that we sit quiet in desperation assuming that being alone is better than being authentic. So, what happens when a person has this mindset?
Heath: Boy, you know, I think about—you know our experience often defines us. Unfortunately, we are a product of our experience. We also know that God has a purpose for us. Sometimes, when we become hurt, our prayer life can become a passive aggressive way of blaming God for the things that break our heart and devastate us; okay?
Sometimes, when we become hurt in this life as well, we become really good at building walls. Something I’ve noticed—I speak frequently in a variety of settings—whether it is universities, churches, conferences—whatever—and I’ve just noticed a few common themes.
A dominate theme is this: A lot of times when people come to Christ and through Christ create a relationship with God, for some reason, they begin to think their feelings are bad. They learn to build walls; and they think if you are going to have faith that means you no longer deal with reality—that if you’re going to have faith, you no longer feel.
Boy, there is nothing further from the truth. The Bible says, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.” What does that mean? He acknowledged his—“You know what? I don’t have any hope; but you know what? I’m going to choose to have hope.” It’s more than a psychological crutch. It is really a spiritual assent to the fact that—“You know what? God, this is who You are, and I refuse to build a theology or a doctrine to explain what I don’t understand. Instead, I’m going to choose to embrace what Scripture says about you regardless of what I’m experiencing.”
When people are wounded and hurt in life, oftentimes, they shut off that place in their soul; and they no longer become vulnerable first and foremost with God.
Heath: They use Christianese when they talk to God in prayer. I found that some of the most authentic, powerful prayers are the ones without words. So, vulnerability is a gift, and God honors our vulnerability and our authenticity. Sometimes, people just simply don’t where to start; and I would say, “Start by being you. Start by being you right where you are with God, and that’s enough. You’ll be amazed with what God can do with you.”
Kim: Heath, you mentioned identity a little earlier. There is a chapter in your book called Does God Recognize You? What effect can being in the valley have on our identity?
Heath: Oh, boy, I tell you what. We can lose our identity; and we can lose, not only who we are, but we can lose who God is to us as well.
David starts off the psalm this way. He says—what?—“The Lord is my king.” That’s not what he says. Does he say, “The Lord is the mighty warrior?” No, the Lord is the one who killed Goliath. That’s not what God—God’s Word tells us. David says, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Now, remember David recites the psalm—Psalm 23—when he is going through a situation that does not line up with God’s goodness. David is the one handpicked by God to become king. David is the one who should sit on the throne. He is the one who should find himself in the palace surrounded by the king’s body guards; but by the time you come to 1 Samuel 22, David—the one handpicked by God to become king—is running for his life because the earthly king named King Saul is trying to kill David.
David is, according to rabbinical tradition, starving to death. David, according to historical narratives, is in a forest—the forest of Hereth—surrounded by Saul’s soldiers who want to kill him. There is every reason in the book for David to doubt the fact that God handpicked him to become king. It is in that moment, when David is starving / going through a very difficult season—his life being threatened—when he doesn’t say, but he would have sang Psalm 23. He opens up the psalm by singing, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
In the midst of a situation that was heartbreaking and devastating, David harkened back to that time in his life when it was just he and God under the stars before anybody knew David’s name / before success came / before all of the accolades and, unfortunately, distractions that often come with success and significance. David harkened back to what it was like when life and faith was simple, and he says, “The Lord…my shepherd.”
At this time in history, shepherds were considered inept, and they were not allowed to give testimony at a legal trial. Yet, we don’t find any evidence that God is insulted to be called David’s shepherd. Here’s what we learn about David when he is walking through the valley of the shadow of death. He reminds himself, first and foremost, of who God is and who he is. He says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Therefore, David acknowledges he is merely a sheep in the valley and in the green pasture because sometimes the green pasture is more dangerous than the valley.
We can lose our identity if our identity becomes more associated with our situation; but our identity should come from our relationship with God. When that happens, it’s amazing how our identity remains secure regardless of what we think and feel.
Kim: You say that the source of our understanding and our perspective actually affects how we view and embrace what’s going on spiritually. What do you mean by that?
Heath: Yes, you know, remember what you don’t see is more real than anything you and I do see. If our understanding comes off of just what we see and experience in this life, it’s amazing how quickly hopelessness will emerge and arise; but remember, our story is being written by a divine hand.
The one who spoke the universe into existence when He created you / when he created me, according to the record in Genesis, God did not speak. According to the record in Genesis, God scooped up a mound of dirt, and He breathed. So, I like to think of it this way. God spoke the universe into existence, but He saved His breath for us.
If we understand that we were formed by and fashioned for the breath of God, then, when we step into a situation that can be troubling / heartbreaking / devastating, we have a different perspective because, again, we remember, “Wait a second. The one who flung the stars into space is the one whose watchful eye I’m under.” There is a hope that comes from that.
Kim: There is. You also say that dark times reveal who we truly are. How have you seen this play out in your life?
Heath: Psalm 16 says, “During the night season, my heart instructs me.” You know, you can tell a lot about, not just necessarily who you are, but who you perceive yourself to be when you walk through the dark night of the soul. When we go through situations that don’t line up with what we know to be true about God, it is there where the mouth will ultimately speak the overflow of our hearts. It is there where, when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we recognize if our God is only God in the green pasture or if our God is also God in the valley.
In Psalm 23, David says this—he says, “You lead me in paths of righteousness.” Paths is plural. There is more than one path paved in righteousness; and if you’re like me, Kim, you love it when the righteous path leads you to the green pasture. Another path is paved in righteousness. Guess where it leads. It leads to the valley—but it’s only a shadow—but it leads to the valley of the shadow of death.
At the end of the day, it’s important that we don’t reduce God to our situation; but instead, we allow the attributes and character of God to endure even if our situation gives us a reason to believe otherwise.
Kim: Sometimes, we are in the valley, not because of something we did or something someone else did; but because, as you just said, God simply takes us there. Why do you think God takes us to the valley sometimes?
Heath: Okay. So, let—if I could just address, sometimes, God doesn’t take us to the valley; and I know some people just hearing the question you just asked are thinking, “Wait. Wait a second. Why would God somehow weave into His purpose for me to be abused as a child?” If your listening audience is like other audiences, one out of four females, according to research I’ve read recently—25-percent of the females will be sexually abused—and about one of six men the same—as children.
There are some—sometimes, people who mean well say, when all hell is breaking loose in our life—“Oh, don’t worry. God has a plan”; and they quote Romans 8:28: “God works all things out for good.” Well, listen, Romans 8:28 is true. We know that because it is in Scripture; but sometimes, when we quote that verse, we subconsciously think that God is the one responsible for it all.
Heath: Sometimes, things happen, and God’s not responsible. Sometimes, moms and dads break their promises, and children grow up in homes without a mom or a dad. Sometimes, people get behind cars, they drive intoxicated, and somebody’s life is forever altered. You can’t tell me God is responsible for that. God is not the one who wants people to drive while intoxicated. God is not the one who wants children to be abused. God is certainly not the one who wants someone to be discriminated against because of their gender, their ethnicity, or the pigmentation of their skin.
So, sometimes, people make decisions that had negative impact on us. It’s not God’s fault.
Heath: Then, in the midst of all of that, God can still do something beautiful and good; but every now and then—and we see this in Scripture—where every now and then, there are situations that take place; and it’s not the devil who is responsible, and it’s not someone who has a slanderous, darkened heart who is responsible. Every now and then, it is God, Himself, who invites us into the valley. Let me give you a few examples.
Mark, Chapter 4, at the end of the chapter, the disciples and Jesus get into a boat; and it’s when Jesus calms the storm.
Heath: And in your Bible and my Bible, there’s a little heading that says, “Jesus calms the storm”; or one of my other bibles have a heading that says, “Wind and waves obey Jesus.” We know those headings were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. They were inserted by someone later on in life to help us navigate our Bible; but what if the heading is wrong. What if that passage of Scripture isn’t just about God calming a storm? What if that passage of Scripture is also about the fact that God invited His friends to get into the boat knowing full well a storm would come?
So, not all storms come from the evil one.
Every now and then, we do experience storms in life when we find ourselves in the midst—if I could use the metaphor—in the midst of the boat. The boat could be a job. The boat could be a relationship. The boat could be a delayed dream or a hope deferred. We find ourselves in this boat, and it seems like everything is going wrong. If you’re like me, I ask, “Where in the world is God?” Well, where was Jesus in Mark 4? He is asleep in the bottom of the boat.
If I was one of the disciples, here’s the way it would have played out for me. I would have went to the bottom of the boat, grabbed Jesus by the collar, dragged Him to the top, verbally abused Him, and said, “What’s Your problem, God? Don’t You care about us? Don’t You see half of the disciples are over the side of the boat seasick and nauseous and the other half are terrified and convinced we’re about to drown? Why don’t You care? Why did You invite us to get into this boat knowing full well a storm would break on the north side of the Sea of Galilee?”
I can imagine Jesus quoting Psalm 23 when David says, “He leads me beside still waters.” I can imagine Jesus looking at the wind and the waves with me and saying, “Heath, what are you so anxious about? Don’t you see even now the waters are always still?” How can Jesus sleep in the bottom of a boat in the midst of a storm? Somehow, He learned to live in a world that never had storms. It was not the evil one. It was not a warlock. It was not a Roman guard who wanted to persecute the disciples. It was God who told them to get into the boat.
Sometimes, God invites us to get into a boat today where encounter storms, where we encounter the wind and waves of life, and we feel like—“God, where in the world are you?” Again, it doesn’t mean that God is responsible for every bad thing that happens. We know God is certainly not. God is a good God; but sometimes, what we think is a spiritual attack is not. Sometimes, it is an invitation by God to discover a new realm of His goodness.
I’ll give you a personal example. If you are like me, maybe, you’ve had a career change in your life. I remember, sometimes, looking back on my life during a particular time of a vocation, I realized, “You know what? This doesn’t feel right. This isn’t going good.” What I discovered was, in the midst of a tumultuous time at work, God had something better. Sometimes, God does orchestrate situations and circumstances to lead us out of the valley into the green pasture; but again, what if the green pasture and the valley of the shadow of death are actually the same place?
So, every now and then, God does invite us into a valley, and He is the one who is responsible. Who does God invite to come on the journey with us when we walk into the valley? According to Psalm 23, He invites an unlikely guest. He invites our enemy.
Kim: How do we recognize the difference between an invitation from God to enter into that valley versus a spiritual attack?
Heath: Okay, a few thoughts. Number one: It’s imperative that we know Scripture because God will never do anything that violates Scripture. We know that God is a good God. Remember, though, that God’s dictionary may be different than ours. I’m reminded of a verse in Peter where it says, “God is not slow concerning His promises.” Some consider slowness—what does that mean? God’s definition of slow may be a bit different than mine or yours. To Him, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like a day. So, slow is relative to the one who operates outside of time.
Well, sometimes, goodness is the same. When you look at Scripture, it was the goodness of God—and this is a bit offensive to the mind, if you think about it—but it was the goodness of God to see His Son brutally mutilated and whipped beyond the form of human likeness, according to Isaiah 53. That was the goodness of God. How do we know that? In Isaiah 53, it says, “It was God’s will to crush him.” There is no parent on the earth that gets a kick out of their child being harmed.
Heath: But at the end of the day, it was God, the Father, who recognized, in the midst of a situation that completely violates our logic—it completely blows our mind—in the midst of that, it was God’s good pleasure to crush His Son Jesus knowing full well what the outcome would be of the cross.
Well, sometimes, we think, “Well, that was true for Jesus. That may not be true for us.” Well, wait a second. We are also sons and daughters. And if God can work amazing things in the midst of something like that, He can do the same for us; but how did Jesus know? When Jesus was in the garden / when Jesus was in the desert being tempted by the evil one / when Jesus hung on the cross, what is He doing? He is constantly reflecting on the Word of God.
If Jesus needed to nourish Himself with Scripture in the midst of a very difficult time, how much more do we?
Heath: So, that’s one of the ways we recognize whether or not it is a spiritual attack or whether or not God is inviting us into a valley to introduce us to His table. We need to know the Word. We need to let the Word be our guide.
Another thought would be this: To pay attention to what your heart discerns. What I don’t mean is I don’t mean just believe everything you feel. What I do mean, however, is this: We’re told in Romans, Chapter 12, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by renewing your mind.” God wants us to renew our mind; and when we renew our mind, we do that through Scripture, we do that through prayer, we do that through being around good people who love Jesus—and sometimes, it’s not their opinion; it’s their wise counsel that transforms our life.
When we renew our mind, oftentimes, we can learn to discern something. The Bible talks about how there is a way to just know and pay attention to that still small voice. It only works if you are grounded in the Word.
Heath: But if you’re grounded in the Word, you can trust His whisper, and I’ve learned to pay attention. Am I experiencing anxiety? Am I experiencing confusion? If so, that’s not God because God is not the author of confusion. Satan is. We know that because that’s what the Bible says.
Heath: But God is the author of mystery. How do we know that? Isaiah 45: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” So, Proverbs 25—and then, I’ll end this—Proverbs 25 says this: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out.” If I’m feeling confused and anxious, I don’t even pay attention to it. I pray about—“God, fix my eyes on Jesus.”
But sometimes, when I’m not experiencing anxiety / if it’s a mystery, I learn to lean into that because God is the author of mystery; and oftentimes, He chooses to write that way.
Kim: I was thinking about this earlier. I’m so happy that you’re emphasizing the importance of us knowing and reading Scripture because there are some people who rely on pastors to give them the Word; and they don’t open up the book themselves to know the Word.
Sometimes, maybe, what’s being delivered, in certain situations, is not completely true of the Word. It’s a little misinterpreted.
Kim: So, I’m so excited that you continue to go back to the need for us to know the Word / be transformed by the Word of God so that we can navigate the valleys.
Now, you do a great work with the Convoy of Hope; and a few years ago, you talk about how you were in this impoverished nation, and you were taken to this prison that was filled with women to minister there. First of all, what were your expectations walking into that place / that space? Then, what was the reality you found?
Heath: Yes. Shortly before I joined the Convoy of Hope team, I went on this trip; and in many ways, this is one of the experiences that was used to bend my heart towards Convoy of Hope, I discovered later. But yes, I walked into a country—I leave the country unnamed—and my expectations were this: “I’m getting ready to go to a prison in a third-world country.” It happened to be a prison for women. My expectations were I expected to see poverty. I expected to see some suffering. I also expected to see an opportunity to, maybe, share the love of God with other people.
What I expected was certainly—it certainly paled in comparison to my experience. I remember walking in—it was devastating. I walked into a prison for females. And the rule was when you were sentence to prison, you had to pay to be there. If your family members could not bring you food to eat, you had to pay to be there. It was a corrupt prison; and what I found out—as soon as I walked into this prison after signing in and talking with the warden, a mob of little children most of them naked, filthy, dirty, covered in feces and urine and everything else—they just ran toward me.
Heath: I remember having the thought, “Where in the world did all these kids come from? What crime did these kids commit?”
Heath: I had never seen anything like it. So, I asked some questions, and what I found out was the women who had to pay to be in prison to serve their sentence—how do you pay if you come from poor families and nobody can pay for you? Well, many of them, unfortunately, resorted to a lifestyle of prison prostitution. The children who ran up to me in the prison were a product of that lifestyle.
So, these kids were born within the confines of a prison—didn’t know what life was like outside. All they knew was—“I wake up every day; and one after another, an individual comes in the cell, and that was their experience.” It was horrible. These kids were hungry, malnourished. They were filthy.
When all of these kids came running up to me, I’ll confess to you—and it’s—I’m frankly embarrassed and ashamed of what I was thinking and feeling; but all these children came running up to me, and after thinking, “Where did these kids come from,” the second thought I had was “These kids are filthy. They’ve got to be covered in parasites and diseases,” and they ran up to me. They started grabbing onto me, and I was nervous. I thought, “I may get sick. I may—I certainly don’t want to take home a disease.”
Within probably a few seconds, I quickly realized how ridiculous that was. I quickly realized how—here I am coming to this space to love these people / to give them some gifts / to share the love of Christ in a tangible way; and here I am doing the very thing that the love of Christ wouldn’t do. I was concerned about something frivolous. Within a few seconds, I realized how ridiculous I was.
I got down on the ground and let these kids crawl all over me. We had fun; you know? There is nothing like wrestling 50 kids at one time, and they are sticking their hands in my nose and in my ears and in my mouth. It was the best thing; and at the same time, it was beautiful. I have to tell you what, Kim. I learned an awful lot about the love of God that day from those kids.
I went there to show them God, and I think I left there equally having been shown God by them. I was a stranger, and they took me in. We were able to give them some presents and share the Gospel with them, but I quickly realized that God is a compassionate God. Sometimes, in order to teach us some truths, sometimes, God takes us into unusual circumstances and situations.
I wish I could have brought every one of those kids home. Obviously, I couldn’t; but I will say this: What they did that day and the love they showed me, I’ll never be the same; but I never looked at God the same either. If you think about it, that’s what we are like when we come to God.
Isaiah 53 says, “Our righteousness is like filthy rags.” There is nothing—and I mean no disrespect against these children because they were beautiful—but we have nothing to offer a holy and high and exalted God. When we come to God, we are like those kids who have nothing to offer. They had nothing to offer me. Yet, we’re that way when we come to God; and yet, God says, “You are beautiful. You’re stunning.”
Heath: “I love you.” Whether we’re in the green pasture or the valley, God still loves who we are.
Kim: What a beautiful illustration as you described those little kids as kind of what it’s like for us to go to a holy God. Yet, God still embraces us.
Kim: Now, you say that, sometimes, we’re called to rest in places that don’t look like green pastures. That picture comes to mind of you laying on the ground with those kids and allowing them to experience you—this new individual—in their lives; but you were able to bring yourself to that place of rest in the midst of that situation. Why is it so hard for some of us to rest?
Heath: Oh, wow, why is it so hard for us to rest? You know we live in a culture that celebrates being driven. Alicia Britt Chole—she’s an author. She’s written a few books that have just impacted our family in a positive way. I remember, one time, just being in a room where she was addressing us, just as leaders. She made this statement. She said, “Sometimes, passion is driven-ness without a resting place.”
Heath: Why is it so hard to rest, you ask? Sometimes, we celebrate the drive / we celebrate the person who works 60 hours a week. I’ve made that mistake; you know? When it comes to some of the personality tests, I’m the achiever. I’m the high-D. I’m the dominate person. I want to take over the world; and then, tomorrow, I’ll take over another world.
I want to be clear. Drive is okay, if your motivation is pure. I think whatever we do, we should do it with excellence. I think whatever we do, according to Scripture, we should do it as unto the Lord. I think anything worth doing is doing with all of your heart and soul; but sometimes, you get more done by doing less.
Rest is not something we do. Rest is a place we come to, and rest is a place we come to in God.
In the Old Testament, the Sabbath was a day—we know that. The first time the Sabbath was given in the Ten Commandments, it was to commemorate the fact that, according to the record in Genesis, on the seventh day God rested. On the second set of tablets that the Sabbath was given to the Hebrews, it was given to commemorate their Exodus from Egypt.
So, the principle is the same—rest—but in the first time, rest was God resting from work; and the second time, rest was resting in the fact that God will always bring you through. In the book of Hebrews, rest is found in Christ. We are not human doings. We are human beings. As a disciple of Jesus, we don’t memorize God, we become like Him.
Heath: One of the primary ways we become like God is to simply let go and be still and be still and know that God is God.
I’m convinced that the main reason we don’t rest is because we think God needs us more than He really does. [Laughter] God can be preach better than your pastor. God can sing better than the award-winning songwriter. God can certainly lead better than I can. He can host a radio program better than you can.
Heath: But He doesn’t do those things. Why? God doesn’t like doing things alone. Once we recognize that, it’s easier to rest / to come to a place in God where we can just breathe. If we have a hard time breathing, God breathes for us.
Kim: There may be some who kind of look at the Sabbath as this thing that God created as the Israelites were coming out of Egypt—an opportunity for them to rest after they spent so many years working; but the Sabbath is more than just rest; isn’t it?
Heath: It is. Yes; the Hebrew word for Sabbath, Shabbat, means to actively cease. It’s when you stop doing what you were doing and do what you weren’t doing. It’s much more than no longer working. It is actively ceasing. It is doing something that allows you to catch a glimpse of the goodness of God. It’s doing something that allows you to pause and have a selah moment in the presence of God. It is doing something that allows you to reflect on the glory of God.
Sometimes, the Sabbath could be—you know you pick a day, and you and your family do no chores around the house; but sometimes, the Sabbath is when you just—and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a day of rest. That’s not what I’m saying—but sometimes, a day of rest doesn’t mean you lay on the couch and do nothing—all though that sounds like a good day. Sometimes, a day of rest means you go camping with your family, or you sit down and watch a movie and cook some steaks on the grill; but rest is a place we come to in God.
In Psalm 23, when David talks about—“He restores my soul”—there is a place we can come to in God where whether we are in the green pasture or in the valley of the shadow of death, where our soul is at rest.
Kim: I want to read an excerpt from page 75 of your book. It says, “One of God’s blessings to those in Christ is coming to a place of rest where we no longer need to strive for approval, run from what shames us, or hide from what causes us pain”; but the reality is, at times, our rest is equivalent to escape—right?—
Heath: Oh, very much so.
Kim: —an escape from those things that shame us / the pains—
Kim: —and that need and striving for approval.
Heath: You know sometimes, we struggle as Christians with the difference between conflict and confrontation. It’s okay to confront things. It’s okay to confront things from our past that torment us. It’s okay to confront things that are getting in the way of us inheriting all that God promised us. Sometimes, it’s okay to confront people.
I don’t know about you. I’m okay—I’m glad when people confront me. I’m glad when I’m off base or maybe I’m going down a road I shouldn’t go—I’m thankful for people who openly love me by providing course correction.
Well, one of the reasons why we don’t rest is because we don’t like to confront ourselves. The most important person that should confront you is you because wherever you go you go. I’m learning how to pastor my soul, how to pastor my own heart, and how to confront myself. There is a freedom there. I’ll give you an example.
In leadership—I interact with a lot of leaders, partly, because of what I do for a vocation / also, partly, because I speak to a lot of leaders—I’ve noticed that sometimes leaders change their opinion based on who is in the room. Sometimes, we become enslaved by the crowd. Sometimes, opportunities seduce us, and they become distractions; and we forget that God does not anoint who we pretend to be. God does not anoint who people presume us to be. God anoints who He created us to be.
Sometimes, as a leader for example, we can become so enslaved by the opinions of others; and God, oftentimes, has something to say about that. When God, in His love, reveals something like that to you, one of the best things you and I can do is confront ourselves; and we pause so that next time we walk into that room or that meeting with leaders, we walk into that room from a place of rest where I recognize I have nothing to prove. You know what? I may love you. I may like working with you; but your approval does not define me; and ultimately, I serve for the approval of one.
From a place of rest, we can lead well. That would be a great example of what I meant in the book.
Kim: Oh, I love that example. That speaks volumes to me as to how I can actively serve God and be at rest at the same time. Now, growing up, we hear Bible stories of the shepherd leading the sheep into the green pasture. In my mind, I always pictured them leading them to the pasture that was already there; but in your book, you talk about the fact that that’s not the case. I’ll you expound on that.
Heath: Yes; okay; so, green pastures—remember, the context of the book is just a verse by verse deep-dive into Psalm 23. It says, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
In the Middle East, if you’ve ever been to Israel or anywhere in the Middle East, green pastures really don’t exist. Really, what you have is this swathe of desert land / dry and barren land; and from what I found in the research, green pastures exist only because somebody went before and went through the hard work of removing the rocks, the thorns, the thistles. They irrigated the ground.
Then, what used to be a dry, barren place—because the good shepherd went ahead to prepare a place for the sheep—that’s the only reason why the sheep have grass to lay down on at night, that is, if the sheep were kept out in open. Sometimes, they were not. The only reason why this sheep have lush pasture to feast on is because the good shepherd went before them.
Heath: It’s a good reminder to me that Jesus, our Good Shepherd—and we are like sheep who have gone astray—He always goes before us, and He goes before us even into the dry and barren places where He prepares a place for us.
There is no place you and I can ever go that our Good Shepherd has not been before. In that, we rest. He is never taken by surprised. God is not in a bad mood. He is certainly not calling an emergency meeting and angels to try to figure out what plan M is. It’s Plan A all along with God. He always knows what to do. It is trusting that what Scripture says is true—that God works everything out according to the counsel of His will I’m thankful that the Good Shepherd cultivates the path in front of us.
Kim: It’s a great picture of His love and His care for us. Again, I go back to the journey that I’ve taken with my dear friend Elizabeth. God was not caught by surprise. God knew the number of her days. And as I rest in that—even as we move forward without her and learn how to do life—what would you tell the family of Elizabeth—her young children / her husband—as they navigate this valley?
Heath: Yes. You know, honestly, I probably wouldn’t say anything at first, simply, because I’ve made that mistake before. I’ve tried to come up with something to say when someone was going through something that is deeply painful and inexplicable.
I’m an ordained minister; and I think sometimes as ministers, one of the mistakes we make is we feel like we have to say something. Let’s look at what Jesus did—remember, again—before He raised Lazarus from the dead. He simply wept with the family members. Jesus didn’t sit down and say, “Hey, wait a second. I’m getting ready to resurrect Lazarus.” He just simply wept.
I think of my wife Ali. There is nobody on the planet who loves people more than her. My favorite thing about her is she is a deep lover—a deep lover of God and a deep lover of people. I’ve taken a lot of cues from her. I’ve learned that sometimes saying nothing and just simply being with people and feeling with them is exactly what is needed.
So, that’s the first thing I would do with the family. I would try to say nothing and sit there and feel with them even though Ali would be more effective than I would be at this point; but I’m working on it.
Something else I would say, though. Is I would say, “It is okay to grieve.” Faith does not deny reality. Faith is the substance of things hoped for; and if you are going to hope for something that means you first acknowledge the situation you’re in. It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to grieve. Oftentimes, people ask, “Why?” The answer is—“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
I’ve experienced a lot of tragedy in my life. There have been a lot of things that have happened in our lives as a family that have been devastating, and I don’t have an answer for it; but I’m learning that there is something greater than the answer. To me, what is greater than the answer is the ability to live with a question and not doubt God’s goodness.
Some of the most profound truths in Scripture / in the kingdom of God are not supposed to be understood. Some of the most profound truths are simply to be held close to your heart, and you hold on to them even if you don’t have language for them.
So, that’s what I would say to the family. I would—it’s okay to feel. It’s okay to mourn. It’s okay to grieve. Go to the Word, but also understand that there is still a table. There’s still a table that God has prepared, and what we don’t want to do is turn our back on the table because we are distracted by the enemy. The enemy, by the way, is never a person. In this instance, the enemy is death. Death is a result of the fall in the garden.
In this instance, with the case of your friend who unfortunately went on to be with the Lord, she’s having a great time; but that doesn’t mean that the family isn’t struggling now. Death is the enemy, and it’s okay to acknowledge the presence of the enemy in the valley; but it’s also important to turn your back on the enemy and let your eyes fall on the table God has prepared because there is a place for us there.
That’s what I would say.
Kim: Thank you.
When we’re in that valley, there can be times when we feel that God is nowhere to be found. In your book, you tell a story about playing hide-and-seek with your kids; and I think it’s a beautiful illustration of God’s relationship with us. Will you share that?
Heath: Yes. So, as a dad, when our kids were younger—hey, who doesn’t like to play hide-and-seek with the little ones? We also know that—when your kids are three and four and you play hide-and-seek, you can win if you want to; right? You can climb up into the attic. You can disappear. You can lock yourself in the trunk of the car. You can find a way to win; but when you play hide-and-seek with the little ones, the most fun part is when they find you.
So, you always leave clues; you know? Maybe, you stomp up the steps really hard, and you close the door to the closet really hard because you are hoping that they get the clues; but I remember hiding underneath the bed and just leaving my leg dangling outside of the bed because I knew they would tiptoe through the kitchen and up the steps and down the hallway and look into every single room and every closet.
When they—always—came into the room, the same thing happened. My leg is sticking out from underneath the bed, and I heard the little chuckles and giggles—from our precious—come from our precious, little girls. They would always tiptoe up to me as they were laughing and giggling, knowing—“Oh, I’m about to get Dad. We’re about to get him. He has no idea. I can’t believe Dad let his leg hang out from underneath the bed. Doesn’t he understand?” No, playing hide-and-seek with the little ones—the most fun part was being caught and being found.
God loves to, sometimes, have us pursue Him; but He always makes it so that we can find Him. His leg is always sticking out from underneath the bed. I’m reminded of the verse I quoted earlier in the radio program—Proverbs 25:2. It’s the glory of God to conceal a matter; the glory of kings to search it out. Isaiah 45: “Truly, You are a God who hides Himself.” God loves being pursued by us, and He always hides in the spot where we can find Him.
It makes you think about the fact that there is something about the journey to finding Him that’s valuable, and only God understands that.
Kim: There’s an illustration you give about a baby elephant and the vulnerability of that baby elephant and what happens in the context of that baby elephant’s life when it is protected by the herd.
Kim: Can you describe that for us?
Heath: Yes; absolutely. So—especially in Africa—and this can happen in other parts of the world but especially in Africa—the African elephant is, oftentimes, easy prey for predators. So, predators will do whatever they can to isolate the little elephant; but the adult elephants will gather around and make noise and intimidate the predators knowing a couple things.
Number one, the little elephant is incapable of out running the predator. The little elephant is incapable of defending itself, and the herd swarms around the little elephant to protect the elephant. They make a sound. They make an intimidating scenario for the predator. Why is that? I would say a couple things.
Number one, when I think of that, I think of the fact that whenever the evil one prowls around us like a roaring lion that we can count on the fact that our God will come alongside of us. Secondly, one of the ways that God comes alongside of us is our community—first and foremost, through our family.
One of the reasons why God gives us family is so that we know that we’re not isolated, and we don’t have to stand in the fight alone. Husbands and wives stand together in prayer. Children stand with their parents in prayer. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, according to what Scripture says; but we come together, and we win. We win numbers.
Sometimes, when we’re in the valley of the shadow of death, we feel like we are alone; but we are not alone at all. When we’re in the valley, the presence of a shadow is a clue that that’s when God draws near. I’m reminded of a psalm: “He who dwells in the secret place abides under the shadow of the Almighty.” So, you and I have a choice. We’re going to live under a shadow no matter what. You can choose to live in the valley of the shadow of death; or we can choose to dwell in the secret place where we abide under God’s shadow. It’s a choice. So, anyway, that’s my thought.
Kim: To add to that, I have to read this excerpt from your book, page 182. In my notes in the margin, I wrote, “Preach”—“Preach!” It says, “What the enemy thought was a feast for his own selfish gain is his defeat. What you thought was a spiritual attack is God’s invitation to come feast at His table in the valley. Rest assured, you are surrounded and protected when you feel most isolated and under siege. Feel the liberty to take your eyes off the enemy”—as you said before—“for he isn’t worth your attention. Fix your gaze on the table God has prepared just for you.”
Kim: That is powerful.
Heath: Yes. It is powerful. You know what? It’s powerful when every single day, regardless of what we face, we choose to do that; and that is a choice. Sometimes, that choice isn’t always easy; but boy, is it worth it.
Kim: Heath, to close out our time, share with me what it means to be in the valley and to have God pour into our cup until it is absolutely overflowing.
Heath: Yes. You know Psalm 23, ultimately, makes sense if you understand the cultural context of where David is coming from. Here was the custom. Remember, David was a shepherd. At that time in history, even to this day, shepherds primarily were male. At that time in history, however, the majority of women were not educated, and the majority of women did not hold vocation. It was a male-dominated society, unfortunately.
But David, being a shepherd—at the end of a psalm, he eludes to a custom that makes all the sense in the world when you understand what the context is when you read Psalm 23.
So, here is the way it went down. Shepherds were nomadic people, and they wandered around the desert. When the sun would set over the Sinai Peninsula, a shepherd often looked off into the distance—a male shepherd—and let’s say I saw your campfire—you and your husband. I see your campfire. I would always say to my family, “Stay here. Keep the animals.” If we were wealthy and had some servants or hired help—“and stay here”—and I wandered toward your camp.
Without saying a word, somebody alerted the male leader of your family or of your clan; and you had this word picture of two male shepherds walking toward one another and standing on a hillside or in a valley and two families looking on from the distance.
Without saying a word, you—being a male shepherd, you reached out and handed me a container of oil; and the oil had two purposes. Number one, the oil had an aromatic purpose. After all, we have wandered around the desert. There is no Axe body spray for junior high boys. There’s no Acqua Di Gio. There’s no, you know, Hilton Hotel. So, we have horrific body odor. We’re scurvy and dirty. I anoint my head with oil, and it takes away the smell.
Heath: But the oil also had medicinal purpose. It killed head lice; and without saying a word, I anoint my head with oil. Then, I turn around, and I anoint the head of every one of my family members with oil as well. Then, you, without saying a word, would motion for me and my family to follow you; and we entered into your little tent / your little edifice where we shared a meal. Typically, our meal consisted of something like dates, raisin cakes, lentils, maybe some goat meat, flatbread, something like that.
Heath: At the end of the meal, without saying a word, you got up from the meal—the male leader. You walk up to me. I hold out my cup, and you fill my cup up with the wineskin. If you fill my cup up, using your wineskin with wine halfway, it’s your way of saying, “Hey, Heath, the conversation has been fantastic, but you need to leave.”
Heath: If you fill my cup up to the top, it was your way of saying, “Your family is just amazing. Why don’t you spend the night with us?”
Heath: “In the morning, before you leave, we will share another meal together.”
Here is what happened. If you filled my cup up to the top after the kids fell asleep and the spouses fell asleep, the male shepherds—because, again, it was a male-dominated society—the male shepherds sat around the campfire, and they took the rod and their staff. Sometimes, the rod and the staff were one instrument. At other times, it was two. It just depends. Male shepherds would carve symbols into their staff. For example, the Hebrew lamedh (ל) is shaped after the shepherd’s staff. So, they carved signs and letters. It became like their diary or their journal.
They sat around the campfire, they rotated their rod and their staff, and they remembered things God did in their past. They shared them orally with one another.
Now, we understand why Moses the shepherd took his staff and stretched it out in front of Him, and God parted the Red Sea. Now, we understand why John writes, when he is on the Island of Patmos, that the testimony of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is the spirit of prophecy. What is he saying? If God did it before, God can do it again.
So, shepherds took their staff, and they mused. They did Psalm 77:11. They remembered the deeds of the Lord, and they encouraged one another with the stories of God. And in the morning, they shared a meal and departed.
What does David say at the end of the psalm? He says, not in the green pastures but in the valley where God prepares the table for us, that God anoints our head with oil. He does not fill up our cup halfway. God does not even fill up our cup to the top. It says, “He anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows.”
Taken from a custom that was common among Hebrew shepherds—what David is saying is: There is a realm of intimacy with God that cannot be discovered in the green pasture. It is only found in the valley. Although it’s a shadow, it is only found in the valley of the shadow of death where God anoints our head with oil and our cup overflows.
Now, we understand why David—the one handpicked by God to become king—does not end the psalm by saying, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me”—in Hebrew, literally, pursue or chase me down—“and I will dwell in the king’s castle forever.” He does not say, “I will dwell in my summer palace forever.” He says, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord”—
Kim: I don’t know how that strikes you, but I kind of wish that life was more green pastures without that valley element. I mean, because, sometimes, when I am going through deep, dark times, it’s the green valleys without the mess / without the hardships that I’m using as a motivation to keep on walking.
So, when I heard Heath talk about the green pastures and the valleys many times being one and the same, I wasn’t too happy about that. I didn’t like it; but then, as I leaned into it, I realized that that’s exactly the place I was in when I was reading his book as I sat at the bedside of a friend. There is intimacy with God in the valley that you don’t get any other way.
Thanks for listening to the podcast. If you’d like more information about Heath Adamson or his book, Grace in the Valley, or the ministry where he serves—Convoy of Hope—why don’t you check out our Unfavorable Odds page at FamilyLife.com/podcasts.
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On the next episode of Unfavorable Odds:
David: I took my brothers to the lake, and one of my brothers called up to me and asked if I would swim with him. So, I dove in next to him. Somehow, I hit my head on the sand under the water, not being able to move a muscle.
Kim: David Kline, next time.
I’m Kim Anthony. Thanks for listening to this episode of Unfavorable Odds.
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